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HES 221: Adolescent Health & Drug Issues: Choosing a Topic

Can you put that in the form of a question?

For many, if not most, research assignments, you need to do more than understand a topic. You need to have some central idea about it, a thesis that is supported by evidence. One way to do this is to reformulate your topic as a question. Chances are your question will change as your understanding of the topic deepens, but it should help guide your search to have a specific research question in mind.

For Example:

For example, if you choose juvenile delinquency (a topic that can be researched), you might ask the following questions:

  • What is the 1994 rate of juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
  • What can we do to reduce juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
  • Does education play a role in reducing juvenile delinquents' return to crime?

Once you complete your list, review your questions in order to choose a usable one that is neither too broad nor too narrow. In this case, the best research question is "c." Question "a" is too narrow, since it can be answered with a simple statistic. Question "b" is too broad; it implies that the researcher will cover many tactics for reducing juvenile delinquency that could be used throughout the country. Question "c," on the other hand, is focused enough to research in some depth.

(From the Writing Center at Empire State College)

Focusing Your Topic

You will have to spend some time mapping out the territory of a topic, sorting out what information is available and what different angles have been taken by others. This is often the most difficult part of the research process - and the most frustrating because you don't feel as if you're making much headway. Try these strategies to make the most of this part of the process:

  • Make a list of possible topics for your research. Use class discussions, texts, personal interests, conversations with friends, and discussions with your teacher for ideas. Start writing them down - you'd be surprised how much faster they come once you start writing.
  • Map out the topic by finding out what others have had to say about it. This is not the time for in-depth reading, but rather for a quick scan. Many students start with a Google search, but you can also browse the shelves where books on the topic are kept and see what controversies or issues have been receiving attention. Search a database or index of articles on your topic area and sort out the various approaches writers have taken. Look for overviews and surveys of the topic that put the various schools of thought or approaches in context. You may start out knowing virtually nothing about your topic, but after scanning the literature you should have several ideas worth following up.
  • Invent questions. Do two things you come across seem to offer interesting contrasts? Does one thing seem intriguingly connected to something else? Is there something about the topic that surprises you? Do you encounter anything that makes you wonder why? Do you run into something that makes you think, "no way! That can't be right." Chances are you've just uncovered a good research focus.
  • Draft a proposal for research. Sometimes a teacher will ask you for a formal written proposal. Even if it isn’t required, it can be a useful exercise. Write down what you want to do, how you plan to do it, and why it's important. You may well change your topic entirely by the time its finished, but writing down where you plan to take your research at this stage can help you clarify your thoughts and plan your next steps.

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